Traction 2006: 2007 Dodge Caliber
2007 Dodge Caliber. Click image to enlarge

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By Paul Williams
Photos by Paul Williams and Grant Yoxon

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Ottawa, Ontario – Each winter the Motorsports Club of Ottawa transforms the parking lot of a local speedway into a superb facility for driver education and club activities. Autos took one look at its two prepared tracks, slalom and emergency braking area and thought two words:

Traction 2006.

Okay, that’s a word and a number, but the idea was clear: we’d assemble a range of vehicle types (compact cars, large sedans, SUVs, etc.) that feature front, rear, or all-wheel drive, on winter and all-season tires to see how they’d fare in the icy conditions that typify a Canadian winter in this part of the country.

We figured driving them back-to-back on a closed circuit like this, similar to the test program used by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada to determine the Canadian Car of the Year, would highlight the similarities and differences of each vehicle, and enable us to make conclusions about best driving practices for the winter months.

It would also be a way for us to experience the many stability technologies available on modern vehicles, and how they help when driving on hard-packed snow or ice.


What we did

Traction 2006: Vehicles waiting at the slalom course

Traction 2006: Vehicles waiting at the slalom course
Click image to enlarge

We brought together 15 current model vehicles and an equal number of drivers, and ran them through two 1.2-kilometre tracks, a slalom course, and an attached emergency braking area. Our speeds for these exercises were maximum 40 km/h for the slalom and braking, and maximum 60 km/h for the tracks.

Our vehicles were fitted with original equipment all-season tires or in some cases, winter tires. Two of the vehicles arrived with both, and we were able to change the tires from all-seasons to winter tires mid-day, and compare the results.

We had 15 drivers for the event, who scored each vehicle for a variety of manoeuvres, including cornering, steering response, stability under hard braking, and acceleration from standstill. Our drivers were mainly local press, but also included veterans of Autos’s 50-Litre Challenge, held in July, 2005.

Traction 2006 is about to begin
Traction 2006 is about to begin. Click image to enlarge

We started at 8:00 a.m. under a clear, sunny sky with the temperature a brisk -18 degrees Celsius (the temperature rose to -6 during the afternoon).

After dividing cars and drivers into three groups to cover each of the two tracks, and the slalom/braking area, we rotated through the vehicles, comparing their driving characteristics. As the day wore on, the test areas became slicker as the icy subsurface was progressively exposed.


The vehicles

Ben Lalonde of Commercial Tire in Ottawa changes tires on the Toyota Highlander

Ben Lalonde of Commercial Tire in Ottawa changes tires on the Hyundai Sonata
Ben Lalonde of Commercial Tire in Ottawa changes tires on the Toyota Highlander (top) and Hyundai Sonata. Click image to enlarge

SUVs
Ford Escape AWD
Toyota Highlander AWD

Full size cars

Dodge Charger R/T RWD
Dodge Magnum SXT AWD
Ford Five Hundred AWD

Midsize cars
Mercedes-Benz C350 4MATIC
Hyundai Sonata GLS FWD
Subaru Outback Limited AWD
Toyota Prius FWD

Minivans
Nissan Quest FWD
Kia Sedona FWD

Compact cars
Smart fortwo RWD
Honda Civic Hybrid FWD
Honda Civic EX FWD
Dodge Caliber R/T AWD


The SUVs

SUVs are very popular in Canada, although unlike our U.S. neighbours, Canadians favour Compact and Midsize SUV’s, rather than the full-size variety.

Traction 2006: Ford Escape Hybrid
Ford Escape Hybrid

Traction 2006: Ford Escape Hybrid
Ford Escape Hybrid

Traction 2006: Toyota Highlander
Toyota Highlander. Click images to enlarge

The Ford Escape is Canada’s top selling SUV, and ours was an Escape Hybrid, using all-wheel drive, and all-season tires. Our midsize, all-wheel drive, Toyota Highlander was tested with winter tires and later in the day, on all-season tires. Both vehicles accelerated easily from a standstill, and even when conditions became slick, the two SUV’s had no difficulty getting underway. The Escape is the lighter of these two trucks, and seemed more skittish than the Highlander, although it was not hard to maintain control – a flick of the steering wheel would bring the Escape around, making this SUV feel somewhat sporty.

The Highlander’s stability control system virtually refuses to allow skidding sideways or losing control in corners. It applies braking to wheels that begin to slide and compensates with the throttle to keep you straight and in control at all times. Unfortunately, when it does this, (which was often in our test) an audible alarm annoyingly beep-beep-beeps to let you know the electronics are taking over. One of the competitive drivers in our group referred to the Highlander as a “nanny” car, because for him, the stability controls, ABS, and traction controls are too intrusive. However, I think most consumers would be very happy with the Highlander’s stability in slippery conditions (although it would be nice to turn off the beeping).

Compared with the Escape, the Highlander took much less room to stop, mainly due to its winter tires. When the winters were swapped for all-seasons on the Highlander, stopping distances increased.


The full-size cars

The big sedans were a study in contrasts. They all featured electronic stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes, but their behaviour on the slippery surfaces was quite different.

Traction 2006: Dodge Charger R/T

Traction 2006: Dodge Charger R/T
Dodge Charger R/T. Click image to enlarge

The Dodge Charger R/T was equipped with winter Continental (ContiWinter Contact) tires on its RWD platform. And yes, it had a HEMI.

Slow, very slow, and steady was the way to drive this car on these surfaces, and even then, there were occasions when the big Charger wouldn’t go forward (you could see the rear wheels rotate as the traction control and tires tried to gain purchase, without success). Once underway, if you kept the speed down, things were okay; increase the speed and the Charger would slide in the corners. I think on all-season tires, you would not be able to drive the Charger on our test tracks, and that more aggressive winter tires (the Winter Conti’s are more a performance winter tire) would give better results on this car. For the more sporting, enthusiast driver, the RWD Charger would be great fun in these conditions, but for the average driver, it’s a handful.

The Dodge Magnum SXT was equipped with all-wheel drive, and this model (SXT) features the V6 engine.

Traction 2006: Dodge Magnum SXT
Dodge Magnum SXT. Click image to enlarge

However, the Magnum was riding on all-season tires, and like the Charger, is a heavy vehicle. The area where it was so much better than the Charger was in starting from a standstill. The Dodge AWD system had no trouble with the icy surfaces, bringing the car up to speed without fuss. Likewise the Magnum was manageable in corners, where it had more poise than the rear-wheel drive Charger (but you still had to watch your speed). Braking was straight, stable, but long. In fact, both the Charger and the Magnum sailed past our cones in the brake test, with the ABS chattering away. One thing to remember is that even though the braking distances were long, because of the ABS, you are in control of the car and can steer effectively.

Traction 2006: Ford Five Hundred
Ford Five Hundred. Click image to enlarge

Something of a surprise was the Ford Five Hundred. Although it’s a big car, it’s lighter than the two Dodges, and with all-wheel drive and grippy Michelin X-Ice tires, the Ford inspired confidence when driving through our exercises. Starting from a standstill was easily accomplished, and driving on the track was more controlled than expected from a full-size sedan. In the slalom and brake zone, the Five Hundred shifted its bulk from side-to-side like a smaller car, and stops were sure, straight and comparatively short. You sit fairly high in the Five Hundred, giving you an SUV-type view of the road ahead. The car doesn’t feel tippy, however. Just no-nonsense stable.


The midsize cars

Such a popular category of vehicles in Canada, the midsize category includes mainstream vehicles like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu, and an array of luxury brands as well. Our test group featured a Subaru, Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai: two all-wheel drives, and one front-wheel drive.

When Subaru heard about our Traction 2006 event, they were keen to have a car participate, and after driving the Subaru Outback Limited it was easy to see why. The Outback is an all-wheel drive wagon with raised suspension, and it’s designed for traction.

Traction 2006: Subaru Outback Limited
Subaru Outback Limited.Click image to enlarge

The Bridgestone Blizzak WS50 winter tires ensured maximum grip in our event, and when starting on the icy surface, the Outback just picked up and went. Stopping, too, was very stable, with the winter tires biting confidently into the surface and the car quickly coming down from speed. Under acceleration, the Outback has so much traction that you think it will turn on the icy surface just as it would on dry pavement – it feels like it should! However, the Outback doesn’t have stability control, and like many all-wheel drive vehicles, its tail will let go when cornering if you’re not careful. It’s not hard to regain control if you have some experience with a sliding car, but don’t expect the Outback (or any car, for that matter) to do your driving for you. You need room, and to prevent this kind of mishap, you need to keep it slow.

Traction 2006: Mercedes-Benz C350 4MATIC
Mercedes-Benz C350 4MATIC. Click image to enlarge

Like the Outback, the Mercedes-Benz C350 4MATIC was a revelation when starting and stopping. At times, it hardly felt like we were on ice and snow, such was the ability of this car to find and hold traction. The Mercedes-Benz 4MATIC all-wheel drive system coupled with very effective Pirelli 210 Snowsport winter tires was surprisingly competent, and in corners, its stability control system would intercede to provide just the right amount of help when required. Granted, this car costs nearly $60,000, but it’s nice to know that you’re getting something real for your money with the C350.

Traction 2006: Hyundai Sonata GLS V6
Hyundai Sonata GLS V6. Click image to enlarge

On its Toyo Garrit HT winter tires, the Hyundai Sonata GLS V6 was also something of a revelation. What an utterly stable and controllable car this is! Light and precise steering, easy acceleration, and very sure stopping were the characteristics of the Sonata as it moved through our exercises. The GLS V6 Sonata does have traction control, but the overall balance of the car coupled with the gnarly tread of the Toyo tires didn’t require its intervention very much. However, take the tires off and replace them with standard all-seasons in these conditions, and the Sonata becomes average. Of all the vehicles, it was the Sonata that best demonstrated the benefits of winter versus all-season tires on icy/slippery surfaces. Our scores put it toward the top of the results on the Garrit HTs, and mid-pack on the all-seasons.

Traction 2006: Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius. Click image to enlarge

The Toyota Prius was also fitted with winter tires (Toyo Observe G-O2 plus), but this Prius had traction control and stability control, which further reduced any propensity to slide in the corners. When losing grip, the stability control would typically modulate the brakes as required to keep the car going in the desired direction. One thing the Prius didn’t do is go sideways under acceleration from a standstill. Front-wheel drive cars will tend to do this, as power (unless you have traction control or a limited slip differential) is only directed to one wheel. If that wheel spins, the front of the car tends to move laterally (something you’ve likely experienced). The Prius’ traction control system pretty much dealt with that, although winter tires will provide additional traction and may reduce wheel spin under acceleration as well.


The minivans

We only had two minivans, and they were big ones. Like the Sonata, the Nissan Quest Special Edition was also fitted with Toyo winter tires, but these were the Observe GO-2 model, and they were not as effective on this vehicle as the Garrit HTs were on the Hyundai Sonata.

Traction 2006: Nissan Quest Special Edition
Nissan Quest Special Edition. Click image to enlarge

Consequently, the Quest tended to plough through corners and often ended up sideways with little provocation. Traction control is standard on the Quest SL, so acceleration from a standstill was fairly smooth, but stability control is not available unless you purchase the more expensive SE model. Stopping was smooth and straight with, once again, the winter tires proving their worth when bringing a vehicle down from speed on icy/snowy surfaces. I have driven a Nissan Quest on dry pavement for long distances, and found it stable, comfortable and easy to control. Our icy tracks were its undoing, though.

Traction 2006: Kia Sedona
Kia Sedona. Click image to enlarge

The 2006 version of the Kia Sedona is an all-new model and it comes standard with traction control and stability control. A key difference between the Sedona and the Quest, however, was that the Sedona was riding on its standard all-season tire. You would think, therefore that it would not be as responsive as the Quest, but that wasn’t the case. The Sedona’s traction control was effective at bringing this big minivan up to speed, and on the slippery corners, the stability control was most helpful, while not being too intrusive.

Traction 2006: Kia Sedona
Kia Sedona. Click image to enlarge

Speed was the key, however, and properly lining it up for corners is important for effectively negotiating them. We had a set of winter tires in the Kia, but they weren’t on rims and we had no way to mount them. Still, it was a manageable vehicle on these surfaces, but would have stopped more quickly with the winter tires, and as I say (and this goes for both minivans) you have to be patient driving them in these conditions.


The compact cars

A lot of people drive compact cars in Canada. But let’s face it: by definition a compact car is small, so you want a manoeuvrable vehicle, good handling, safe and responsive.

Traction 2006: Honda Civic Hybrid
Honda Civic Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

We had a varied selection at Traction 2006, starting with two Honda Civics (a Hybrid and an EX) one on all-season tires and one on Michelin X-Ice winter tires. Both have ABS, neither have traction control or stability control, and neither particularly distinguished themselves when accelerating from a standstill or handling the corners on our test tracks. However, these are light cars, and comparatively easy to drive. If you do start to slide, adjusting the throttle or steering will readily bring things under control.

Traction 2006: Will Barber of AdvanTech Studios attaches his gear to the Honda Civic sedan
Will Barber of AdvanTech Studios attaches his gear to the Honda Civic sedan. Click image to enlarge

Download the video: Small (5.8 mb), large (19.7 mb). Windows media player compatible viewer required. Video courtesy of AdvanTech Studios. Visit AdvanTech Studios to view more cool car videos.

In these conditions, Civics don’t lurch or suddenly spin; they are fairly predictable and therefore a very good choice for people without special driving skills. On the snowy parts of the track, the Civic Hybrid with its Michelin X-Ice tires felt particularly stable, and a notable difference when stopping, was that the winter tired Civic Hybrid required appreciably shorter distances than the all-season tired Civic EX.

Our smart fortwo had all the bells and whistles: traction control, stability control, ABS, and winter tires. But none of it helped much. The smart’s rear wheel drive configuration (even though the engine is over the driven wheels) coupled with its super-short wheelbase made this vehicle a major challenge on the slippery surfaces used for our exercises.

Traction 2006: smart fortwo
smart fortwo. Click image to enlarge

Acceleration from a standstill or occasionally when moving was difficult. When cornering on icy surfaces, the smart wanted to rotate on its axis. Even when stopping the smart wanted to rotate, although it did stop, ah-hem, smartly. Although everybody wanted to drive the smart, the experience didn’t meet expectations.

What do you need to maximize traction in a small car? All-wheel drive is a big help.

Traction 2006: Dodge Caliber R/T
Dodge Caliber R/T. Click image to enlarge

We were fortunate enough to have a pre-production Dodge Caliber R/T in the group, and it was very impressive, even without winter tires. Accelerating from a standstill was a piece of cake, and cornering was controlled and balanced. Stopping would have been improved with winter tires, for sure, but it was straight and predictable. The Caliber will be available with stability control, and I’d suggest that with this option and winter tires, you’d have a formidable compact car for the winter.

Conclusions

It’s the tires, stupid! Well, something like that. Of all the tests and exercises we conducted during Traction 2006, vehicles with winter tires stopped one-to-two car lengths before vehicles with all-season tires, and they provided better grip in the corners. What this means in practice, is that if you are approaching a stopped vehicle and you need to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision, your chances of not rear-ending the vehicle in front are significantly increased if you’re riding on winter tires.

In short, winter tires can reduce the distance required for you to stop on most icy/snowy surfaces. Of this we are certain.

Traction 2006: Dodge Caliber R/T
Dodge Caliber R/T. Click image to enlarge

Similarly, if your vehicle has anti-lock brakes and you are emergency braking, you can still steer your car, and with winter tires you may have extra grip when doing so. On the road, if you’re emergency braking, look where you want to go, and steer your car there – anti lock brakes permit this – whereas an out-of-control skid with your brakes locked, does not. On the other hand, anti-lock brakes don’t do much on ice, although as I say, if you have grippy winter tires like the Pirelli 210 Snowsports on the Mercedes-Benz or the Blizzaks on the Subaru, these may give you the edge you need to maintain control.

Winter tires don’t necessarily translate into significantly improved traction under acceleration, however. They can help, but we found all-wheel drive was the best technology for that.

Traction 2006: smart fortwo
smart fortwo. Click image to enlarge

With all-wheel drive, you can get going without fuss on pretty much any surface. The problem occurs when after easily reaching 60-80 km/h, you need to quickly stop or turn. Then you might find that the surface is slipperier than you thought, and you’re going too fast for conditions. So all-wheel drive is no guarantee of control, either.

At Autos, we like all the stability technologies available on modern vehicles. But in winter, on snowy or icy surfaces, your absolute best friend is the space between you and the vehicles around you. This means controlling your speed to maximize the space between you and everybody else, and driving slowly when roads are slippery and the weather is bad.

Traction 2006: Dodge Charger (foreground) and Dodge Magnum
Dodge Charger (foreground) and Dodge Magnum. Click image to enlarge

Even on SUVs with all-wheel drive, winter tires will bring your vehicle to a halt sooner. They’ll protect you, and the people in the small car you might have hit. Granted, on the west coast where winter conditions are milder, winter tires may not be required. In the Prairies and Northern Ontario with their continuous sub-zero conditions, they’re a must. In Southern Ontario, people argue that you can get away without them, but when the weather turns bad, the same people are unprepared. In Eastern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, it’s winter tires for sure.

Note, however, that vehicles (and tires) will perform differently on ice, compared with snow or slush. All these surfaces are slippery, but hard-packed snow will give the best traction when you have a choice.


Our test results

These results are not scientific, but they do give you an idea of our impressions of the vehicles we drove. We had drivers score each vehicle from 1-10 in acceleration from a standstill, cornering, emergency braking, ride, and overall control. Our top-rated vehicle was the Mercedes-Benz C350 4MATIC, followed by the Toyota Highlander and the Ford Five Hundred.

In each category, the vehicles are ranked according to our scores (the overall ranking is in parentheses; note three vehicles tied for sixth):


The results


SUVs

1. Toyota Highlander AWD (2)
2. Ford Escape AWD (6)


Full size cars
1. Ford Five Hundred AWD (3)
2. Dodge Magnum SXT AWD (11)
3. Dodge Charger R/T RWD (15)

Midsize cars
1. Mercedes-Benz C350 4MATIC (1)
2. Subaru Outback Limited AWD (4)
3. Toyota Prius FWD (6)
4. Hyundai Sonata GLS FWD (9)

Minivans

1. Kia Sedona FWD (10)
2. Nissan Quest FWD (12)


Compact cars
1. Dodge Caliber R/T AWD (5)
2. Honda Civic Hybrid FWD (6)
3. Honda Civic EX FWD (13)

4. smart fortwo (14)

 

For additional suggestions for winter driving, see the Autos winter driving section and for tips on winter driving, check out Autos’s Checklist for Winter Motoring.

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